You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2010.

That the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments can rightly be considered arguments for the existence of God must be called into question in light of the considerations I have mentioned in my most recent posts.

At best the cosmological argument would prove that there must be a first cause (or ultimate ground of all existence, or some other such vague notion) but this is hardly the same as proving that there is a personal creator who cares about us and wants us to love one another.  (This point has been made by many philosophers but it bears repeating since it is also a point that is all too easily ignored, as I will show below).  In fact, only the teleological argument (and here I mean to include modern “fine-tuning” arguments) stands a chance of establishing even that the supernatural force  is intelligent  (a first cause can be completely inanimate; a designer, however, needs to be conscious and intelligent).  But again an intelligent designer need not be all loving nor worthy of worship. (see Philo’s comments at the end of part V of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; and pay attention to Cleanthes’ response.)

I have tried to show that a genuine experience of the divine entails (at least for the major religions) both a sense that one is subject to external moral requirements and a sense that one’s own nature is in harmony with ultimate reality.  But even if we could establish that the universe was designed by a supernatural intelligence (and, just to be clear, I don’t think this it is possible to establish this) this would not entail that the nature of this intelligence is in harmony with our own.  Nor would it entail that we are subject objectively valid moral requirements.  Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus is an excellent illustration of this point.  For all that can be established via the teleological argument, the intelligent designer may be as capricious and amoral as Zeus.  Prometheus most emphatically did not experience a fundamental harmony with Zeus.

So, if we understand God as an intelligent being who is the ultimate ground of all reality, who places moral demands on us, and whose nature is in fundamental harmony with our own,  then I don’t think that it is correct to say that the teleological argument or the cosmological argument are arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument presents a slightly more complex issue, one that I will put off for now).  Furthermore, the current very public debate between the so-called new atheists (such as Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens) and traditional theists almost completely misses the point.  Rather than arguing that science does not need the notion of an intelligent designer to explain the existence of complex life in the universe, and rather than debating whether Big Bang cosmology implies that the universe had a beginning and thus requires an external cause, atheists’ time would be better spent demanding that theists prove that there is an all-loving, intelligent being who is the source of all reality and whose nature is in fundamental accord with human nature.

As an example of the sort of mistake I have in mind, I offer the following quote from Keith Ward’s response to Dawkins, Why There Almost Certainly is a God.  Ward says, “The question of God is the question of whether conscious mind can exist without any physical body, and whether that mind could account for the origin of the universe.” (p. 19) While that is an interesting question it is misleading to say that this is the  question of God because a positive answer would not necessarily imply that this consciousness is all-loving, worthy of worship or even gives a damn about us.  Ward also approvingly quotes Dawkins statement of the God Hypothesis: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”   I don’t think that atheists (or theists for that matter) should let such definitions go unquestioned.  Obviously the above hypothesis leaves some very central aspects of religious belief out.  In fact, I would argue that it leaves out everything that is essential and valuable about religious belief since the religious experience is fundamentally about feeling a kinship with ultimate reality and understanding that one must work to improve oneself.    This is what God is supposed to account for.  When a skeptic says “Show me God,” this is what should be demanded.

I doubt that I can offer a very good answer to the question that I posed in my last post.  Instead I will try to make the question as compelling as I can.  Last time I asked why experiencing awe would generate feelings of moral compulsion.  I want to expand this question a bit by adding the observation that religious belief seems to presuppose that an experience of ultimate reality will be profoundly joyful and will change one’s life for the better.  Why should this be?  Knowledge of ultimate reality, whether conceived as a personal God, impersonal Brahman, Buddha-nature, indifferent matter, etc., etc.,  is, at first blush, simply that: knowledge.   Knowledge is not always pleasant.  Why should knowledge of whatever kind bring with it, of necessity, any change in the understanding of one’s duty, values, or emotions?  Why shouldn’t one’s reaction to a genuine experience of the divine be indifference, ambivalence, or even revulsion leading to outright opposition?

For example: The Buddhist path to liberation  insists that an accurate perception and understanding of ultimate reality leads not only to an end to dukkha (suffering) but to compassion for all sentient beings.  The question is why would my comprehending ultimate truths yield a concern for others?

Why should a fundamental and deep understanding of impermanence or sunyata (emptiness) automatically result in the cessation of grasping?  Why shouldn’t the reaction to impermanence be one of noble, if sisyphean, opposition based on a fundamental aversion to the reality that nothing is permanent.  In other words, why shouldn’t the arhat, upon realizing the truth of impermanence say, “Yes, nothing lasts, everything is impermanent, and that sucks!”  If one is truly attached to the idea of a permanent self, wouldn’t the realization that there is no such thing bring utter despair; a realization not of the beauty and goodness of ultimate reality but that reality is ultimately inimical to human nature (or at least my nature).

To put the question in a monotheistic context: Why shouldn’t Moses, upon learning of the jealous and wrathful nature of God, break the Tablets not in anger at his fellow countrymen but in passionate fury at God?

The notion of righteous rage at the ultimate power receives its best articulation in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.  Oceanus’ counsel may be wise but hardly consistent with personal integrity: “we are ruled by one whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account.  Acknowledge this, and cease to kick against the goad.”  For Prometheus, that ultimate truth is not to be embraced; and he endured brutal torture rather than acknowledge Zeus’ authority.

The great religions of the world insist that Prometheus’ reaction is inconceivable; When one comes face to face with the Ultimate, say these faiths, one cannot help but  recognize a fundamental harmony between one’s innermost self and that Ultimate Reality and consequently experience bliss, ultimate satisfaction, and a deep love and respect for all.  But why should this be?  Every spiritual path entails sacrifice, perhaps most crucially one must abandon one’s own self interests in the pursuit of  (allegedly) higher goals.  But why think that the values that are revealed during a genuine experience of the divine will be consistent with my own.  Again, supposing that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is true, why should it be that a full realization of this truth puts an end to self-centered desire and leads to peace and ultimate bliss?  Why shouldn’t one rail against the absurdity that that which we most desire, i.e. immortality (the indefinite persistence of oneself), is fundamentally impossible?

One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others).  Why should reverence be tied to morality?

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’  from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion.  Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.)  Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural.  Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications.  And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.

What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.

Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for  humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way.  Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will.  This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities.  The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us.  Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)?  There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values.  The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.

Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God.  Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard.  This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.

However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself?  I’ll leave that question for next time.

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 258 other followers